Why Agency of the Year gongs matter to agencies – but what about clients?

Many years ago, Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt, an early prophet of globalisation, announced: “Being the world’s number-one company is wonderful, two can be terrific, three is threatened and four is fatal.”

In some of those 1980s markets, he may have been right; IBM had the biggest computers so it won. But the world moved on. Levitt’s manta was adopted by, among others, Saatchi & Saatchi in the high old days when it briefly became the biggest ad agency in the world. Levitt, I recall, became a director of S&S.

Charles Saatchi and brother Maurice (right and left below) always recognised that this was a compelling message for brands – so come to S&S and be famous – but also for themselves. Saatchi was the first ad agency to become a recognised name in both the business and consumer communities. And you never got fired for hiring IBM.

Fast forward 30 years and ad agencies are still chasing fame. This accounts for their (expensive) obsession with awards and also their ferocious pursuit of agency of the year awards.

These are dished out by the various trade media (MAA has awarded its US Agency of the Year gong to Wieden+Kennedy and we’re mulling over our UK winner).

In the meantime, the lobbying by the agencies that see themselves in with a chance can be ferocious. They know, that, just as Levitt described, being recognised as top dog is great, anywhere else is – just – somewhere else. Saatchi saw that this was true of agencies to a greater degree than their clients, hence their advocacy of Levitt.

These days, chief marketing officers and the like don’t stay in the job for life. They do a stint of five years or so and then move to another bit of the company if they want to have the chance of becoming CEO.

They have far more agencies to deal with than their predecessor, who stayed longer in the job. They’ve got an ad agency, a media agency, a PR agency, a customer relationship marketing agency (CRM), a digital agency, a social media agency and, for all I know, an inside leg measurement agency.

They may also have, if they’re a big client, a holding company such as WPP or Omnicom offering to do all these things for them. So they really can’t remember all the names of these various agencies and their supposed achievements.

Hence the attraction of agency of the year gongs. The chief marketing officers (CMOs) and their bosses – the CEOs and chief financial officers – may not know what these baubles represent but, they might assume, they must mean something.

In the UK, the most sought-after such gong is probably Campaign’s, and the contenders for 2015 are supposed to be adam&eveDDB (the John Lewis agency and the 2014 winner), Grey, the current darling of Sir Martin Sorrell’s WPP crop and Lucky Generals, a newbie agency that’s made an impact with some striking work for Paddy Power among others.

A&E will be peed off if it doesn’t win – but philosophical as it’s won just about everything else. Lucky Generals will be pleased to make the list but aware that it hasn’t won a really big account. But it’s new and we all need good new agencies.

Grey, which has been laying siege to this award after reinventing itself from perhaps the most boring big agency in the world to a lively, creatively driven company, will probably shoot itself if it doesn’t win.

Will all this make a blind bit of difference to clients? At the margin, yes.

This article first appeared in International Business Times.

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